The canteen of the Ajka thermal power station in the early 1960s. #126462 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

Vending Machines and Self-Service Restaurants in Socialist Hungary

The Illusion of Abundance and Efficiency in a Shortage Economy

“On November 7, a bar called Mézes Mackó is opening on Rákóczi Street, with the first jukebox in Budapest, which provides entertainment for only one forint,” this is how a newspaper on October 22, 1956 reported about future automation. The newspaper also reported that the first fully automated self-service snack bar would be set up on the corner of Lenin Boulevard, with vending machines selling all sorts of products, including Vienna sausages, beer, sandwiches, and cakes. “Whether more ‘robotized works’ will open at other spots in the city depends on the success of the first vending-machine bar.”

The next day, the “entertainment” of people took an unexpected turn from the official plans the newspaper had reported about: The 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out and it turned out most people had enough of working like a robot… However, even if with a bit of delay, socialist vending machines did spread and they even turned into a symbol of apolitical progress. Catering to the expectations and demands of consumers was a priority for the subsequent Kádár regime and thus the traditional forms of trade, commerce, and catering were replaced by a new type of logistics and automation in self-service facilities, snack bars, canteens, grocery shops, gas stations, and railway catering machines. Citizens-turned-consumers met the new forms and new aesthetics of socialist modernization including colder neon hues creating a sensation of development and progress, with mirrors installed in order to prevent theft, and metal food trays replacing traditional white tables in self-service canteens providing affordable, second-class prices.

The food and drink vending machine of the Utasellátó Vállalat (Railway Catering Company) at Keleti Railway Station in around 1969. #208444 Photo: Fortepan / FŐFOTÓ

Automated snack bars, i.e., vending machines, followed the Soviet model. “‘Can service at a canteen be automated? How does food taste if it is served by a machine?’ I wondered as I was heading to the automated canteen on Dzerzhinsky Square. This is my first visit to such a place, though I have heard that there had been attempts at running one in Budapest as well,” a Hungarian visitor reported with an obligatory tone of amusement about their visit at the place a few steps away from the headquarters of the KGB during their stay in Moscow. Though there were some guests who missed the romantic character of traditional restaurants, the waiters, and the white tables (there is no waiting impatiently for service, but “there is no time for a good conversation at the table with the lady the guest has invited”), but the automated snack bar is fast and convenient, it is modern and reliable. “This must be the reason why according to the sixth five-year plan, new automated bars and shops will open in Soviet cities.”

Beverage vending machines in Russia in around 1967. #50323 Photo: Fortepan / Gyula Nagy
Sochi, Russia. #164648 Photo: Fortepan / László Faragó

At the 20th Party Congress, during which Khrushchev gave his famous “secret speech” denouncing the crimes of Stalinism, the Communist Party also made a decision about the automation of everyday life in the Soviet Union. The mass production of vending machines had to be organized for trade and for public services; vending machines would play a key role in overcoming the chronic supply problems in trade. Indeed, they did play such a role—in the propaganda. “One can have a meal at the grocery store at a table — a vending machine serves hot chocolate. I checked the register for complaints, and it is full with grateful notes from customers,” a Budapest newspaper reported auguring a great future from the used grounds of cocoa substitutes (instead of coffee) “In the cities of the Soviet Union, one bumps into vending machines everywhere. And the future? In Yerevan alone, a hundred of them get installed,” the Hungarian reader learned, while probably thinking for a second of the classic Radio Yerevan jokes about the dialectics of idea and reality.

Latte and hot chocolate wending machine, 1975. #127460 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer
Self-service basket buffet by the Utasellátó (on board catering company) in a railway car at Déli Railway Station, Budapest, in 1962. #109656 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

While the official news included installing pencil-, and exercise-book vending machines at schools (with an additional extra service sharpening broken Soviet pencils in a blink of the eye), the technical invention did not solve the issues of the shortage economy eventually. Still, automation played an important role in socialist retail trade from the end of the 1950s in Hungary as well. For working people, everyday robotization took the form of rotary snack vending machines at bus and railway stations offering basic sandwiches with the typical cold cut called párizsi, pieces of cake of dubious quality, and goulash soup tasting like water, but one could find postage-stamp machines at post offices, and such novelties as left luggage lockers at bus- and railway stations and metro turnstiles that hit one in the crotch for one forint. Even a “lottery number selecting television set” could help one select random lottery numbers. At hotels and other special sites, one could get a dose of perfume sprayed from a coin-based dispensing machine, which prompted the newspapers smelling of ink to evoke the exciting scent of automation: “A perfume dispensing machine may sound like a marginal issue. However, it tells a lot about the wide possibilities automation holds for commerce. These machines are economically efficient, they work fast, and they liberate the people from low-level physical work.”

A snack and beverage vending machine at Szolnok railway station in 1975. #109858 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

Vending machines of all sorts and types turned into interactive public statues of modern socialist consumerism, spreading in the 1960s and 70s and marking and signaling the level of progress the political system strived for. However, it was the self-service snack bars, canteens, and grocery stores revolutionizing retail trade and public catering that had the most impact, as they indeed changed everyday life. “An elegant self-service grocery store. On a summer evening, in the blue, ice-cold neon light of the store,” wrote writer Endre Fejes in his novel Jó estét nyár, jó estét szerelem (Good evening, summer; good evening, love). In the specialty store, a novelty arrived: the frozen ready-made meals called “TV-type,” as according to their promo, they only required the time of a break between two TV shows to make them.

Icecream vending machine, 1970. #127203 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

Vending machines were a novelty in Hungary at the time, but they had existed for decades in other parts of the world; the trend of automated snack vending machines dated back to the beginning of the 20th century and started in the United States. They had appeared in Hungary before World War I and later in the 1920s as well, but they were aimed at consumers of a higher social level, not the lower segment of society. According to the recollections of writer Géza Ottlik in a newly opened site on Vámház Boulevard, one had to insert 20 fillér in coins in order to get “a wonderfully delicious sandwich with mayonnaise, [bone] marrow, mushrooms, and anchovies,” and for six forints, the machine with a glass tower also served a pint of beer. “A sandwich-vending machine will never behave in a way that leaves you with the feeling that they were born to be something more, a rototiller or a submarine, and that they only feel talented to be that, and that they are serving you as a favor and with disdain, only because they could not find a better job for the time being,” the magazine Est wrote about the topic. Writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote in several instances about how vending machines gained popularity and then swiftly lost it, and he found an epitome of the spirit of the age in their rise and fall. He stated that he even met a fake vending machine: a sort of 20th-century Farkas Kempelen, trying to monetize the art of chocolate selling instead of chess, who hid in a box and took money from above and gave out chocolate below. “A living human being who realized that the children of our age trusts machines more than humans; a living human being who realized that it was best for him to fake a machine, to lie that he or she was a machine, if he or she wanted to make a living; a living human being who pretends to be dead in order to avoid dying of hunger.”

A self-service, automated snack bar produced by the Danish Wittenborg Company and installed by the Utasellátó (on-board catering company) at the dock in Balatonfüred, next to Restaurant Vitorlás in 1971. #109883 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer
“Automatic buffet” sign at the bus station in Gyöngyös on Koháry Road (Április 4 Boulevard) in around 1975. #109782 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

The time of mass automatization only came during socialism, first with a self-service grocery store installed in Buda, on Martyrs’ Road (today, Margit Boulevard). Its opening ceremony was hosted by the minister of internal commerce, József Bognár, and the newspaper reported about it as a significant step ahead on the road to progress, stating that “customers really liked this new way of shopping, not having to wait for shop assistants, no rush, no arguments, no excess charging, as in other KÖZÉRT grocery shops; and that they could all do a round of grocery shopping, including checking and looking around, under two or three minutes.”

The satirical weekly Ludas Matyi came up with a quick little poem to salute the progress:

“I heard some good news, not minor for the customers, really:
Five self-service shops opening up this year in the capital city.
We serve ourselves fine, but are left with a strange feeling:
How could one be rude to oneself, we ask, while we do it?”

Self-service grocery store in Budapest, no. 128 Thököly Street, 1956. #131974 Photo: Fortepan / Samodai József Zugló District Local History Workshop
1976. #84652 Photo: Fortepan / Magyar Hírek periodical

It is hard to imagine today that self-service shops were once a huge novelty, but it is not a coincidence that the press published educative articles on the topic, describing in detail the shopping process, marking the expected path to proceed along on store maps, explaining that the baskets waiting at the entrance had to be filled with goods by the customers themselves. Before, everything had to be asked for at the counter, where the shop attendant wrote a chit for it, which the customer paid at the checkout counter. A system mixing at-counter service and self service with goods placed on shelves was new and changed the entire industry model.

Larger self-service grocery stores called ABCs (few people know today that the acronym stands for Általános Beszerzési Cikkek, that is, general purchase items) spread and it “gradually transformed the retail trade network which consisted of specialized shops, such as meat shops, bakeries, and milk shops.” At the new grocery stores, one could buy all in a single space, from groceries to cleaning supplies, writes social historian Tibor Valuch in his book Hétköznapi élet Kádár János korában (Everyday life in János Kádár’s times). This consequently transformed arrangement, packaging techniques, appearance, and the aesthetics of consumerism as well; it brought neon signs, modern lighting and freezers, and additional mirrors installed in the lower part of the shelves in order to try to prevent theft. “Service? This expression is not valid here. Here one serves oneself. Employees only serve some information. And attention. As in being attentive to customers in order to catch when someone is leaving without having paid,” complained the writer Károly Szakonyi about the new consumer experience, reporting sadly about its impersonal character and the feeling of being lost.

The Ózd Department Store at no. 54 Vasvári Street, mid-1970. #84632 Photo: Fortepan / Magyar Hírek periodical
A grocery store at the building of Hableány Restaurant in Badacsony, in the park adjacent to the railway station, in 1964. #113890 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

According to historian Eszter Zsófia Tóth, someone even wanted to attack physically the designer of a self-service shop, because he found it “outrageous” that “the tired workers are not even attended in the shops anymore.” Self-service shops spread quickly, nevertheless. The first one outside of the capital city was opened in Debrecen, and in a few years, more and more self-service units opened in small villages as well. By 1970, there were more than 6,000 in the country. The main advantage of these shops was a more efficient use of space and faster service: according to a 1960 survey, a shopping trip that took eleven minutes in a traditional shop only took three in a self-service store.

ÁFÉSZ self-service store on the Main Road (Vöröshadsereg Road) in Dunavecse, next to the corner of Széchenyi street, in the mid-1970s. #70370 Photo: Fortepan / László Jáki
ÁFÉSZ conveniece store in the Tormás district of Nagykőrös in around 1970. #142530 Photo: Fortepan / István Péterffy

Similar reasons led to the preference of self-service factory canteens and restaurants, also strongly backed by the Ministry of Internal Commerce from the 1960s on. The Research Institute of Internal Trade and Commerce conducted research in foreign self-service restaurant practices and also did a survey among customers. In some places, a ticket-system was installed at first: the caterers punched a hole in the customer’s paper menu according to the meal that was taken, and the customer paid after finishing the meal. Soon, another practice started by the Halló Bar on the Grand Boulevard (“With stuffy air and a scarce menu,” as the poet Dezsö Tandori wrote). Their solution of corridors leading the customers all the way from the counter to check-out is still used today. “Toward the feeder, toward the future / moves the line held by corridors,” wrote the poet János Térey about the golden age of self-service canteens based on his childhood memories.

Some basic problems were explicit early on—such as the noise, which was countered by sound damping flooring and plastic trays, or meals getting cold, which was supposed to be prevented by serving soups heated to a temperature that allowed consumption right away and heating second courses to a higher temperature. But the so-called önkis with their aluminium trays, tin counters, and their specific smell, could or would never replace proper restaurants. They had a significant advantage though from a public catering perspective: serving one customer in the traditional form took 40–45 minutes, while in self-service restaurants it took only 10–15, or as a maximum 20 minutes, according to survey results.

“Please order HERE, at the amplifier.” #127429 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

The new, conveyor-belt type approach was good enough for catering to new customers of the proletariat, but it barely sufficed to provide real catering and restaurant experience. Thus, it is no wonder that self-service restaurants spreading throughout the country along with concrete panel buildings were only full during lunchtime, and they were empty as a tin lunch box during any other time of the day, as Péter Horváth writes regarding the historic restaurant district Óbuda. Self-service restaurants were criticized in the socialist press as well: meat full of sinews, skimpy menus, “the once ceremonial ritual of lunch is degraded to queueing, waiting, balancing plates, and eating while standing as if in a bar,” Eszter Zsófia Tóth quotes one of the articles of the newspaper Budapest from the time. Today, we see a factor of nostalgia in these places: I myself remember well the multilevel standing tables, the mákostészta (noodles with poppy seed), my father’s curious, almost maniac attraction to self-service restaurants, and my first ever eclair at a self-service catering unit on Baross Street. I could not have cared less that the place offered low prices equal to a second-class restaurant. Today, seeing the same, classic menu items, such as inexpensive Újházy soup, a small portion of pörkölt, or roasted liver with pommes frites in Facebook posts melts the hearts of many of us, in spite of the historical role self-service restaurants had in making our taste buds more dull.

The Tej Bistro (milk bar) at no. 28 Csanády Street in Budapest, in around 1974. According to the data published by the website, we can calculate the value of the 1974 prices in today’s rates by multiplying them by 62,2. So an espresso would cost about 212 forint today. #112062 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer
Self-service restaurant at the Zsolcai Gate in Miskolc in around 1971. The rate of conversion for 1971 is 63,8, that is, a plate of marhapörkölt would cost 287 forint today. #126204 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

For me, the only memorable vending machine bar was the one in the subway of Batthyány Square in Buda. This one was a big one; as it turns out from my recent readings, two employees had to refill the machines continuously and it served as a reference for the Danish manufacturer of the vending machines. Thus, behind the socialist freezer display, Western machines worked in the background. The vending machines were uninstalled sometime after the 1989 regime change, which also saw the closing of many of the self-service canteens and restaurants.

Batthyány Square subway, 1973. #109765 Photo: Fortepan / Sándor Bauer

We consulted the Arcanum Digitheca during the writing of this article.

Text: Ádám Kolozsi | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]

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